Our adventure starts as so many do: playing gear Tetris with an already-full car, followed by a brief stop to pick up breakfast tacos. Then, we are off, leaving Austin behind for the dusty scrub desert of southwestern Texas. We make several stops at forlorn gas stations in the middle of nowhere, and finally around 7pm we make it into the park and are reignited by the stark change of scenery—a rugged, chossy mountain range rising into the dusk like towers guarding secrets. We snap photos at a pullout, hungrily scarf dinner at the lodge, and drive to our campsite where we sleep on dirt under a full moon to the lullabies of distant coyotes.I wake in my bivy to cold air on my face, confused at the darkness. I hear the boys unzipping bags and packing, and remember where I am. Time to get up. We cook oatmeal and coffee in the near-dawn and pile into the car as the sun comes over the ridgeline. At the outfitter in Terlingua, we unpack the car and repack into the shuttle van, check the map again and our driver heads for the put-in. With boats loaded and sunscreen slathered on thick, the team shoves off—Ryan and I in one canoe, Aaron and Zach in the next, and Kelly playing the Lone Ranger in the third, which is strategically also carrying the ice chest full of beers.
Within less than five minutes, our boat has run aground into the mud of Mexico twice. Ryan and I are not used to canoes on rivers, and steering in this current is a bit tricky. After a while, we figure it out. The first several miles are an easy float past tall grasses and riparian trees lining the banks, which look desolate and nondescript on either side save for when a tiny village pops up here and there on the southern (Mexican) shore. Occasionally, we see small groups of men sitting quietly in the shade on the right-hand bank. They wave and say hello and I ask them how the day is going; it appears to always be going well. Soon, the entrance to the canyon is upon us. Dusty banks give way to incredible walls of golden, friable rock lining the river with an ominous stoicism. We’ve been told by the guide to not dally getting into the canyon today, as high winds can occasionally appear and make it impossible to move downstream. We heed his advice, making good time while reveling in a sun-baked awe at the magnitude of the Boquillas’s 1200-foot-high stone barricades. We are in it now; there is only one way to go: forward.
That evening, we pull onto shore at an empty sandbank, go for a deliciously cool swim, and explore. High up into the hillside, Ryan and I climb rocky ridges that look to me like stegosaurus spines, and nearly every five feet, I find quartz deposits and fossils. This place used to be an old seabed, and the evidence is plentiful. On the delicate climb back down to camp, I line my pockets with picture rocks, saffron-colored quartz, a fossilized snail, an ancient lobster tail, and butterfly wings. Dinner is pasta and whiskey, and the telling of bad jokes before we all retire. We leave the rainfly off the tent and I close my eyes to the tune of a billion stars.
Day 2. Somewhere around 10-12 mi into the canyon.
We paddle in the cool morning for a couple of hours and then break for lunch on the sunny shore of Mexico. The concept of borders and separate nations feels incredibly ridiculous in our current reality: nothing changes when we touch one side or the other. No one else is here. There are no border guards, and a wall would be truly laughable in this place. To be standing casually upon a bit of soil named “Mexico” feels surreal only because we have constructed these arbitrary linguistic and political differences between the left and right sides of the waterway, and those constructions create an entire universe of meaning. To my animal brain, however, there is simply river mud under my toes.
The crew clambers through the waist high water to the other side, whooping and laughing. I watch them, snapping a photo and glancing at the darkening clouds that are menacing the distant gap behind the mouth of the next canyon. I’m expecting the weather is going to turn soon, I know what those clouds hold, but little do I know just how terrible the battle is soon to be. At the mouth of the vertical cave, after crossing the river to join the guys, I peer up at the slippery, grimy walls, covered in loose dirt and twigs from the handiwork of unidentifiable nest-building mammals, and see that a sketchy ascent is required to gain entrance to this tunnel from the water. Kelly and Zach can be heard from their perch overlooking the water about 15 feet up, where the curving tunnel opens back up to the daylight.
After sussing out the moves a few times I finally get hold of a solid jug and basically chimney myself above the waterline using just my arms; the feet are worthless. Spanning the gap with all four limbs like a starfish, critter dust and choss bits snowing down around me, I try not to breathe too deeply and contemplate my choices. I’m a strong climber and can make the delicate moves, but looking down I think “this is stupid“. Getting back down appears a solid recipe for a bad fall, likely cuts and scrapes at the least and a head or neck injury at worst. We’re at least ten river miles from another human, and many hours from medical care; I don’t need to climb this thing. Carefully reversing my movements, I splash gently back down into the water, hoping silently that Kelly and Zach don’t get hurt when they make their descent. They do so without incident and we regroup on the southern bank, around the canoes. Apples and peanut butter and trail mix sandwiches are eaten as we notice wind fouling the closest bend we’ll soon be entering. The calorie binge is a good idea; we don’t know it yet but we’re going to need them all.***
The winds are getting worse, blowing against us ever since we left our lunch spot, and picking up intensity as a front of dark clouds overtakes the warm sun that started our morning. Ryan and I are having a rough time of it; we don’t know how the others are managing to keep their boats straight and having to repeatedly correct the course against opposing current and wind is wearing us out quick.
We get spun around backwards for the umpteenth time and duck our heads to avoid thorns as we push away from the outer bank, facing the wrong way. Looking behind me I see Aaron and Kelly about 100 yards downstream in the first boat, stopped and holding onto bamboo along the bank, waiting. Zach’s canoe is closer, pulled up to shore where he stands waving his arms over his head at us from a small sandbar just past another rushing S-turn. I follow his gaze to a car-sized boulder on the right, toward which the current of the rapid is going to sling shot us; a snag of tree branches and debris forms the other side of the V on the left. We are already spooked from hitting the wall several times on the curves behind us and have little control with the fiercely growing gusts but I can see that hitting this boulder is nontrivial. If we don’t steer through it, we’ll likely capsize right in the middle of the rapid. If that’s not enough, another big rock is jutting out in the middle of the river just past the S. We have about thirty seconds to prepare.
I twist around in my seat at the bow which is now the stern, yelling for Ryan to stay calm and keep his balance in the center of the boat. His face tells me that he is too panicked to know which way to paddle anyways. “I got it, I got it!” I yell and my focus narrows, eyes scanning the line of the charging water, reflexes on hyper alert. As we approach the start of the V, I ease my paddle down to backsteer against the flow, working to point our bow away from the rapidly approaching boulder and into the middle of the chute without overcorrecting. It’s working. “I got it, just hold your balance!” I repeat, eyeing the second rock ahead. We slalom perfectly through the S and I backsteer again to slip the stern out behind us and steer around the smaller boulder. Then, we’re through. I don’t know how I’ve done this, backwards no less, and finally I remember to breathe. We point for the sandbar and pull up next to Zach.
Aaron and Kelly join; we all take a breather on the sandbar as the winds blow sand into our faces, and suddenly Zach’s canoe rolls sideways in a strong gust, dumping the stern into the water along with all of his gear.
We all rush to bail out the boat and grab the now-floating bags of food and who knows what else. On cue, the wind picks up, and the rails of my boat begin to heave sideways. Ryan shouts at me to stay with our canoe and I run back, grabbing it before it can blow over and jump into the middle. I hunker down trying to distribute my weight so as not to strain the middle that is resting unevenly on this sloped bank, and watch helplessly as the other four struggle to collect our dunked supplies, keep them from blowing away and also flip the swamped canoe over the second boat to empty the water. While they finish, I slump a little, feeling the exhaustion of fighting these winds for the past two hours and noticing my nerves have risen to the point that I’m no longer having fun. I’m overtaken by a moment of weakness. Looking downriver, I watch the howling wind blow white caps across the opposing current, having to throw my weight into it once it reaches me in the third canoe; if I’m not crouched down it’s strong enough to threaten pushing me and the boat backwards. “I don’t want to be here,” I think. “This is stupid. How can we keep paddling through this all day? We’re getting nowhere.” It feels dangerous, not necessarily for any immediate, physical harm since the water isn’t too deep, but more for the risk of losing gear and not having warm clothes or sleeping bags for the coming night. But even as I ask aloud “So guys, we’re going to wait this out right?” I know that we cannot. We have to keep going. There is far too much distance to cover before we can rest today or we’ll never make the take out by Monday.
We begin to realize how deep we are in it now. If we lose anything crucial, there is no hiking back to a trailhead, it’s either move forward with what we have or stay here, alone, with no chance of a rescue being sent for several days at least.We switch up partners so that Ryan and I can get a break from our seeming inability to coordinate paddling; now Kelly and I are a team and we set off into the angry weather, pulling hard strokes into the water and moving ahead of the group for at least a mile. Soon, we’re all straining to move through what feels like an impossible wind. I look at the surface of the water and vaguely recall from my time living on the sailboat that whitecaps and wind waves means somewhere between 10-20 knots. The next day, the guide who comes to meet us at the take-out will confirm that we’ll have paddled through 15-20-mph oncoming winds with gusts of up to 30-mph for about eight hours. Those hours are grueling and somehow we keep each other laughing and struggling forward to a beach for the night that we feel is sufficiently far enough to make the end tomorrow. At times we hold onto each other’s boats and pass around beers or whiskey to make the day hurt less. I am beyond exhausted but still, I have been guilty of claiming to love a good sufferfest more than once, and the truth is I’d rather be here romancing fear and exhilaration in the heart of the Boquillas than stuck at work or sitting on a couch.
We make our camp for the night and fall into the sand, passing around more whiskey, roasting ears of corn over hot coals, and firing up the stoves to make some of the best wilderness tacos we have ever tasted. This camp feels slightly eerie to me—while there have been quiet signs of human and animal presence all along the length of our journey, the shore we have chosen (on the US side) to rest for the night looks to be at the edge of some range property; something in my inner senses tells me to be more cautious here than I felt need for deeper back in the canyon where no humans can reasonably own the land. Perhaps I feel more welcome where the soil bears the untouched remnants of snails millions of years old and where cacti grow unfettered than here, a “civilized” plot of land. I fall asleep hoping the boats don’t blow away in the night.
Day 3. ~7-10 mi to go
On our last morning we pack up and discuss the one big rapid that is looming toward the end of this final push. We have been told that it’s too big to run in a canoe and has a large rock in it that has broken boats before; we are expecting to be able to see it ahead of time and determine that this is the point at which to walk the canoes. We hope it will be this obvious. Our enthusiasm to reach the end is spurred on by the weariness of yesterday’s battle, and we set off for the day with an impressive speed and the wind much more in our favor. Ryan and I sing the same four bars of Bon Iver’s 715-CR33K over and over, and when we lose a paddle in the overhanging thorn bushes by trying to not capsize while saving our eyes from being scratched out, I don’t even worry too much. Somehow I know Aaron will get it when he floats by, and indeed he does.
Soon we come to a rapid with large roils of muddy water billowing against the curve of the bank. We guess that this must be our spot to watch for, so all five of us get out and start to walk the boats across a shallow section that spills swiftly into the larger portion of the river but allows us to skirt the shore. It takes us a lot of muscle to guide the canoes down this part without letting them get sucked into the current. I am up to my waist trying to block the boat from its desired path while Ryan pulls it to safety. Disaster avoided, we all think, and pile back in to keep pushing for the take out. Some pleasant miles further downstream, we come to another curve of galloping water. Ry and I are having none of this, we are drinking beer and singing and have no qualms about getting out of the boat again to drag it across a shallow braid. We signal to Zach and Kelly and suggest they do the same but they want to run it. Aaron is behind, slightly upstream since he is powering his boat alone in the third canoe. Ryan and I watch the other two steer for the left bank, and then all four of us realize that there is a large rock guarding the end of the rapid, and in fact, this is the one we were supposed to miss. I see their faces hardened as the boys paddle for the downstream V, slip steer away from the bank and slingshot through toward the half-submerged boulder. Both pull hard on the right and the canoe glides past the pourover unharmed, a miracle. When Aaron comes into view, I raise my arms in an X and point to the rapid. He gets the message and hauls his boat through the ankle-deep shallows to meet us.
We are wearing thin, but we can sense the finish line getting closer. By now we have learned to avoid the banks and the angry teeth of the sweepers—the thorned branches that now line both sides. We’ve nearly mastered the correct way to tack down the river, and I’ve gotten much better at ferrying around snags and reading the water. Only Ryan and I have avoided capsizing, but we’ve screwed up plenty of other maneuvers, and everyone is soggy and coated in mud from the knees down. Zach has taken on a rag-tag assortment of clothing loaned out from the rest of us since his belongings took a dive. The day is overcast, and we’re chilled, but we sing and keep each other laughing to fuel our spirits.
One final S comes into view about a mile from the end, and the water is running high. My inner voice whimpers a little when I spot it from the stern. I’m worn out from being on constant alert, gritted teeth and reflexes readied. A wall of rock juts out from the bank at the rapid’s end, requiring delicate steering and perhaps a little more coordination than Ryan and I are equipped to give at this point. As we start our run through the center and I begin to backsteer, I can already tell I won’t be able to get the bow around quick enough and that we’re going to ram straight into the pale sandstone at full speed. Ry, in his exhaustion, is uncertain of which way to help correct our trajectory and I see him freeze. “Fuck, hang on! Sorry!” I shout, and we bash head-on into the rock with a brain-rattling jolt, gripping the sides of the boat and managing to counter our weight so as to not roll sideways into the water. Furiously shoving away from the wall with my paddle, we glide the final 10 feet toward our waiting team, and an adrenaline-fueled banshee yell of madwoman laughter escapes me while Ryan shakes his head wordlessly. I might be losing my mind. I want to be off this damn river.
Finally, another forty minutes later, my wish is granted. Floating gently underneath the bridge crossing into La Linda and pulling up onto the left-hand shore, we make our take-out almost an hour before the guide is scheduled to pick us up. I can think of few times else in life that I have felt such relief. When we get back to Terlingua, I’m going to devour the biggest burrito I can find.
A huge thank you to STOKED Roasters for fueling our trip with much-needed coffee! We couldn’t have made it without all that caffeine.